Ancient cities used covered channels and pipes to remove wastes from buildings, probably as far back as 8000 B.C. There is evidence of indoor plumbing pipes in Scotland from that time, although the sewage was tunneled straight out to a nearby creek [source: Bloomington]. Cesspits were found under homes in Iraq dating from as long ago as 4000 B.C. These systems fell into disrepair during the Middle Ages. Throughout this era, wastes and refuse were simply thrown out into the street. By the 18th century, many large cities had systems for removing rainwater, but sewage was usually disposed of in cesspools.
When cholera spread through early 19th century London, most residents thought the deadly disease was spread by some sort of mysterious airborne organism. Severe outbreaks killed tens of thousands of people four times between 1831 and 1854 in several industrial English towns and the worst London outbreak in 1853 killed more than 10,000 people alone. Anesthesiologist John Snow was able to map the Soho outbreak and the relation between cholera deaths and pumps located near sewage in the Thames River [source: Summers]. He was able to convince local citizens, authorities and fellow physicians that the disease was not an airborne one, but related to the sewage-tainted water.
Modern sewage systems began to appear in the 19th century, when existing storm sewers were enlarged to carry wastes to nearby waterways. Municipal sewage treatment was slowly adopted in the 20th century. The growing size of cities and the pollution caused by untreated sewage forced the passage of legislation that set quality standards for treated sewage and funded sewage treatment facilities.
It's vitally important to a community to have a sewage system. If waste is not promptly carried away, a community can become infected by disease. Disposing of untreated or inadequately treated waste into waterways or the soil can create serious pollution. Disease-causing organisms can infect drinking water, and toxic chemicals can poison the water and kill wildlife. Some of the nutrients in sewage can cause certain aquatic plant life to grow excessively. Decomposing wastes can deplete waterways of oxygen, making them unfit for many species of aquatic life.
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